The Fundamental Problem with the Argument for Airstrikes

Nicholas Kristof has a column that exemplifies why the case for bombing Syria is so unconvincing. There's a fundamental bait-and-switch at the heart of the article, using the (uncontested) fact that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is a monstrous tyrant to skate over the question of what exactly airstrikes against Syria would do about it.

Over and over again, Kristof notes the death toll of the civil war in Syria:

It’s all very well to urge the United Nations and Arab League to do more, but that means that Syrians will continue to be killed at a rate of 5,000 every month.

So far, we’ve tried peaceful acquiescence, and it hasn’t worked very well. The longer the war drags on in Syria, the more Al Qaeda elements gain strength, the more Lebanon and Jordan are destabilized, and the more people die. It’s admirable to insist on purely peaceful interventions, but let’s acknowledge that the likely upshot is that we sit by as perhaps another 60,000 Syrians are killed over the next year.

Today, I’m dismayed that so many liberals, disillusioned by Iraq, seem willing to let an average of 165 Syrians be killed daily...

One has to concede that civil wars are horrible and Assad is horrible. But in itself these banalities do not a defense of military action against Syria make. Saddam Hussein was if anything a worse dictator than Assad, but (as Kristof presciently noted at the time) this didn't make invading Iraq a good idea. What's happening in Syria is terrible, but, again, what would airstrikes do about it?

Well, let's conclude the last paragraph I quoted above, in which Kristof gives an essentially self-refuting answer:

...rather than contemplate missile strikes that just might, at the margins, make a modest difference.

Bombing Syria might—or might not—make a difference that the most optimistic proponents concede is both marginal and modest? I'm afraid if you're going to argue for raining destruction on Syria, with the inevitable loss of innocent lives, something a little more specific and substantive than that is necessary.

This is the fundamental problem with the case for airstrikes against Syria: the lines of communication between means and ends seem to have been cut off. A brief period of firing cruise missiles is superficially appealing because it doesn't seem to run the risk of turning into an Iraq-style quagmire. But whether the end is enforcing the norm against chemical weapons or weakening Assad's hold on power nobody can explain exactly what the strikes would accomplish. They are very unlikely to affect the balance of power in Syria or to stop the civil war. They wouldn't plausibly deter any dictator from using chemical weapons in the future. While the upsides of attacks against Syria are so dubious that advocates immediately vague out when getting to that part of the argument, the downsides of attacking Syria are very real and very concrete.

One would hope claims that military action against Syria would be strictly limited in duration and scope can be taken at face value, but the embarrassing efforts by the administration to paint Assad as a Hitler poised to conquer most of western Europe and opponents of airstrikes as Neville Chamberlains gives one pause. What happens when the airstrikes fail to stop Assad's murderous actions or the Syrian civil war? If frustration about the failure of military action to accomplish desired ends led to escalation, this would be far from the first time. Even a small risk of a broader engagement is a dispositive case against bombing Syria.

At bottom, as James Fallows notes, the case for action against Syria is based on the same logical error as too many foreign-policy disasters past: we have to "do something," and military action is ... something. Kristof's column is a classic example of the fallacy. But no matter how many times proponents discuss the death toll of the Assad regime, it doesn't change the fact that attacking Syria has almost no upside and any number of downsides. Proponents of attacks focus so much on Assad's bad actions precisely because they would prefer to avoid the question of what precisely a military strike would accomplish other than making the proponents feel better about themselves.

Neither the Obama administration nor other advocates of intervention have made a decent case for attacking Syria. Congress should deny the requested authority for the attacks.

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