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.

Comments

Both premises of this article are completely logically flawed.

1. First, this author essentially argues that because "we can't tell what foreign leaders are thinking," there is no reason to presume that the President's credibility (translation: willingness to use force) will influence the decisions of foreign leaders. However, that is a completely circular argument, which assumes its own conclusion. You might as well argue that criminal penalties cannot possibly deter crime because "we don't really know what criminals think." In reality, there is a vast body of evidence not only regarding how criminals think, but also how criminal dictators operate (it's called the entire course of human history). And there are a ton of real-world examples of use of force leading to greater diplomatic leverage -- so long as the use of force is effective. Just look at the way all the neutral states in Europe bent to Hitler's will in 1940-41, after he had demonstrated his willingness to use force time and again (of course, that would be an example of credibility being used for evil). Indeed, focusing just on the recent examples in the Middle East, it could reasonably be argued that Obama's unwillingness to intervene in Syria laid the groundwork for the Egyptian coup. It could just as reasonably be argued that Obama's failure to act when Assad used chemical weapons on a smaller scale led the dictator to use them on a larger scale more recently, because he calculated that Obama would again fail to respond. Lack of credibility is as damaging in international relations as credibility is helpful.

2. After simply assuming his first, flawed conclusion is correct (but citing no evidence), the author next goes on to argue that international punishment will not deter Assad because Assad "is fighting for his survival" and so his need for survival outweighs any possible deterrent effect. But that premise is as logically flawed as the first -- indeed, it is precisely because Assad is fighting for his own survival that it is reasonable to assume he will be desperate to avoid foreign intervention in favor of the rebels. If Obama leads Assad to believe that anytime Assad's regime uses chemical weapons, it will face retaliatory strikes by the U.S. and possibly an armed intervention, then Assad's survival instinct will compel him not to use chemical weapons (despite the tactical and psychological advantage they give him). He will make a cold survival calculation and determine that using chemical weapons decreases his chance of survival.

"...it is precisely because Assad is fighting for his own survival that it is reasonable to assume he will be desperate to avoid foreign intervention in favor of the rebels."

Or Assad could look at it like this: "If I continue to use chemical weapons, the US will TRY to kill me. If I don't continue to use chemical weapons, the opposition eventually will DEFINITELY kill me." His cold survival calculation may be different than the one you ascribe to him.

Wow those pesky WMD's that the Intel and satellite photos showed being moved into Syria just before the UN inspectors went into Iraq comes back to bite Obama and the left in the a**. I guess Bush was right the UN and the left waited till they were moved and then cried "there were no WMDs in Iraq."

Sigh. It is certainly sad to see old and disproven neo-con fairy tales dragged out again. Anyone who actually follows the subject knows 1) that the tale of Iraqi WMD being smuggled into Syria never held water and 2) Syria has a robust chemical weapons production, storage, and employment capability without fictional weapons from Iraq.
That story was always "I know they were here somewhere and I can't find them so they must have been moved to, uh, hum, Syria!"j

The resolution in favor of American intervention in Syria conceals an agenda for escalation far beyond, as a statement by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Robert Menendez described it, a “narrow” and “focused” US response to the chemical weapons attack on August 21. The American public and Congress are being fooled into a broader effort that looks a lot like war and regime change.

Maybe it’s the price the president paid for Senator John McCain’s vote. But McCain’s amendment, which says, “It is the policy of the United States to change the momentum on the battlefield in Syria as to create favorable conditions for a negotiated settlement,” suggests escalation will not be far behind air strikes.

Perhaps regime change is a good idea. But then why not make the argument openly? There can be only one very familiar reason: that if the American people and Congress heard what the war-makers have in store, there would be little chance of approving the marching orders. If public currently opposes the missile strikes, imagine the reaction toward an even wider war. The authorization would be dead on arrival.
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