The Chatterati are all over cable news shows “explaining” their support of or their opposition to taking military action against the Assad regime in Syria. We can sort the objections into categories. There are some which are emanating from the same perspective though coming to different conclusions, and of these we have the usual suspects focusing on hypothetical results affecting the perception of American power.
The underlying assumption is that America must never appear “weak,” and therefore any proposed response to a intractable diplomatic problem must be “strong, resolute, and over-powering.” Whatever the policy or project, it must result in the domination of American interests. Examples of this perspective are on offer from such pundits as Krauthammer, and General Robert Shales, ret. [WashMon] The Power Argument has some intrinsic flaws.
First, it rests upon external perceptions: We are only as strong as our adversaries think we are. In one context it could be the policy analogy of the Quaker Cannons of the American Civil War… logs painted black and “pointed” at “targets” but far enough away not to be discerned for what they actually were. Externalizing our evaluation requires precious little internal evaluation. If our opponents believe we are a Super Power, then we must be. This obviates the need for self-evaluation. Another facet of externalizing our evaluation is that we tread close to the differentiation between “respect” and “fear.” Do we wish to be respected, or do we “Bomb Bomb Iran” indulging in the militarism which incites more fear than respect?
Secondly, the hyper-militarism seems to be predicated upon hyper-masculinity. Attributes associated with the “He-Man Hero” genre of Hollywood fantasies are projected onto real international diplomatic issues. Our response must be “robust,” our actions must teach the villains a “lesson.” Our policies must leave no doubt about who is in control. In this Shoot’em Up version of international relations the scripted imaginary world of film industry melodramas becomes the matrix in which we are to evaluate the efficacy of our diplomatic and military actions. We can, and no doubt should, base our international relations on firmer grounds.
Another element in the debate focuses on hypothetical results of hypothetical actions. In this realm we get the “What If? and the “What then?” questions. Objections to taking any military action against the Syrian government may be framed as: “What if Assad survives, and announces to the world that he has stood up to the Super Power?” As noted previously, this objection is grounded in the Perception of American Power perspective, and comes close to adopting the tenets of the Bruce Willis – Rambo – Hollywood School of International Relations. However, it also tracks with analysis based on judging hypothetical actions by their possible negative hypothetical results. Ezra Klein provides a list of ten possible negative outcomes which fall into this general category. If there were ever a recipe for complete inertia this would suffice nicely.
However, merely because there might be negative results from some actions doesn’t necessarily mean all actions are equally undesirable. This kind of thinking often produces nothing other than the false choice fallacy: We must do Everything or we shouldn’t do Anything.
Again, as noted previously — we’ll get better answers when we ask better questions.
1. Does the United States have legitimate interests at stake in the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian Civil War? There are arguments refuting this — it is a civil war, and there are some bad actors on both sides, individuals and groups with which we have nothing in common and who are not generally supportive of our interests. On the other hand, the answer is “yes.” We are a signatory of both the 1925 Geneva Protocol and the 1993 CWC. We understand, and have agreed, that the use of these weapons causes unnecessary civilian casualties, violates international norms of behavior, and if we can’t act to stop this variety of egregious behavior, then what can and should we attempt to stop?
2. What should be the objectives of American policy toward Syria? Should our objective be the restraint of the Assad Regime’s use of particular tactical weapons in the internal conflict? Or, should our objectives be wider, including such possibilities as (a) the removal of the Assad Regime? (b) the stabilization of the Middle East region? (c) the protection of Israel and allies like Turkey and Jordan? Generally speaking the broader the objective the more difficult the diplomacy. Eliminating the capacity of the Syrian government to transfer, deploy, or store chemical weapons isn’t a particularly daunting military objective. Lord knows we have an arsenal of tactical weaponry suited to the purpose. However, protecting our own interests while bringing the interests of Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, and other Middle Eastern states into the calculations is much more complicated.
Rather than pontificate on these two issues, let me offer some of the better reasoned position articles on the subject of American interests for your consideration. On the conservative side, Mark Moyar, of the Hoover Institution at Stanford, provides a summary of U.S. interests in Syria. Caparra and Farr, writing for the Brookings Institute evaluate “U.S. Intervention in Syria: Other Options besides Military Action.” On the left, the Center for American Progress described the shift in American policy towards Syria in an article posted last June. Ken Sofer provides a thoughtful piece, “Next Steps in Syria,” also from the CAP. Richard Betts observes, “Pick Your Poison: America Has Many Options in Syria, None are Good, in Foreign Affairs. The humanitarian aspects of the conflict are summarized in Atlantic’s piece, “Why Human Rights Groups Don’t Agree On What To Do About Syria.”
It shouldn’t be too much to ask that if we are to debate the value of an American intervention in the Syrian Civil War, at least we do so intelligently.