Tag: Syria

Washington Foolishly Tilts Towards War in Syria

The bitterest fights tend to be civil wars. Today, Syria is going through such a brutal bloodletting. 

The administration reportedly has decided to provide arms to Syria’s insurgents. It’s a mistake.

This kind of messy conflict is precisely the sort in which Washington should avoid. Despite the end of the Cold War, the U.S. armed services have spent much of the last quarter century engaged in combat. At the very moment Washington should be pursuing a policy of peace, policymakers are preparing to join a civil war in which America’s security is not involved, other nations have much more at stake, many of the “good” guys in fact are bad, and there would be no easy exit.

Military action should not be a matter of choice, just another policy option. Americans should have something fundamental at stake before their government calls them to arms.

No such interest exists in Syria.

Intervention against Damascus means war. Some activists imagine that Washington need only wave its hand and President Bashar Assad would depart. However, weapons shipments are not going to oust a regime which has survived two years of combat. Intervening ineffectively could cost lives and credibility while ensuring heavier future involvement.

There is no serious security rationale for war. Damascus has not attacked or threatened to attack America or an American ally. America’s nearby friends, Israel and Turkey, are capable of defending themselves.

Another concern is the conflict spilling over Syria’s borders. But this does not warrant U.S. intervention. Maintaining geopolitical stability rarely approaches a vital interest justifying war.

Moreover, intervening would not yield stability. Washington foolishly attempted to sort out Lebanon’s civil war three decades ago and was forced into an embarrassing retreat. There’s no reason to believe joining the Syrian killfest today would yield a better result.

Another claim is that ousting the Assad dictatorship, allied with Tehran, would weaken Iran. Likely so, but then Iran would have a greater incentive to emphasize ties with Shia-dominated Iraq, which also has been aiding Assad.

Moreover, a chaotic, fragmented, sectarian Syria likely would do more to unsettle Iraq, Israel, and Lebanon, allied or friendly to America, than Iran. Tehran’s divided elite also might close ranks in response to an increased feeling of encirclement.

Advocates of U.S. action point an accusing finger at Iran, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and Russia for helping Damascus. However, Qatar and Saudi Arabia are providing money and weapons to the rebels. Turkey is offering sanctuary for insurgents. The international nature of the struggle is a good reason for Washington to stay out.

Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles also argue against intervention. Chemical agents are the least effective and most geographically constrained of so-called weapons of mass destruction. Thus, “leakage” is more likely to threaten Syria’s neighbors than America.

Weakening or overthrowing the Assad regime is more likely to release chemical agents to potentially hostile governments or groups. Air strikes would loose chemicals against surrounding civilians. Boots on the ground would mean regime change, leaving Damascus no reason not to use chemical weapons as a last resort defense.

The most pressing concern is humanitarian. But Syria is not a case of genocide committed by an armed government against an unarmed people. There are two forces ready to kill. Defeating one does not mean peace. Rather, it means the other gets to rule, perhaps ruinously.

In both Kosovo and Rwanda the U.S.-backed victors committed atrocities. In Syria reprisals are certain whoever wins. Neither Afghanistan nor Iraq offer reasons for optimism—extended blood-letting, interminable involvement, disappointing outcome.

The result in Syria actually could be far worse, because of the rise of Islamic radicalism among insurgents. These fine folks recently executed a 15-year-old boy for blasphemy in front of his parents.

The final pitch for war is camouflaged as a call for American leadership. However, whether leader or follower, the U.S. would lose by attacking Assad.

Although diplomacy looks forlorn after two years of combat, it remains the best hope. Despite recent gains, Assad’s forces remain unlikely to reassert control over the northern half of the country. The opposition’s divisions and Assad’s outside assistance make a complete rebel victory unlikely. All of the surrounding states have much to lose from continuing war. A second best modus Vivendi might be possible.

Even if diplomacy fails, however, Washington should stay out of the war.

Syria is a tragedy. There is no reason to make it America’s tragedy. President Barack Obama should ask: does he want his administration to be defined by involvement in an unnecessary and unpopular no win war, as was that of his predecessor?

Political Bloviation in Doha, Qatar

The 13th Doha Forum has convened, with your loyal correspondent in attendance. It is an impressive gathering, filling the luxurious Ritz-Carlton. Cars are checked for bombs before approaching the hotel. Guests have to go through a metal detector both entering the hotel and inside heading to the conference. The meeting room was full, with just about every citizen of Qatar (who only make up something like 15 percent of the population) seeming to line the hallway before the Emir arrived.

There are few more tragic figures than onetime national leaders who have fallen away from the centers of power. For instance, after the Qatar royals, who still do matter, opened the gathering, to the stage strode a frustrated former British prime minister trying to remain relevant. The Right Honorable Gordon Brown, who finally grabbed the premiership from his frenemy Tony Blair only to lose it in the 2010 election, twice quoted John F. Kennedy while chattering on about the importance of interdependence.

Brown also urged the creation of a North African-Middle Eastern development bank to promote economic growth in such nations as Egypt—which, he failed to note, has been buried in foreign aid for years without generating economic growth. The former PM was introduced as preventing a new Great Depression (who knew!) and later lauded for his “profound” ideas (apparently defined as previously advanced by his hosts in Qatar).

Francois Fillon, a former prime minister of France, followed, telling us that we needed to solve the Syrian conflict, create a Middle Eastern financial institution, and “defend European civilization,” whatever that means. The moderator declared his ideas to be “fascinating” and his mention of Europe to be an example of “self-reflection.”

Amadou Bondou, the vice president of Argentina—which has made a practice of looting the productive and stealing people’s retirement savings—denounced austerity. These policies are having “negative repercussions” on poor people, he complained. No doubt, they are. However, if you have a wild party, you can’t very well expect everyone else to pay the clean-up costs. Next time countries, especially his own, should think before blowing their budgets to enrich favored interests and win votes.

Wolfgang Ischinger, chairman of the Munich Security Conference, concluded the first session with a discussion about the importance of solving the Syrian conflict. He suggested a comprehensive conference to end the fighting and conduct of proxy wars in the region. Alas, what evidence is there that the parties are prepared to settle or that their backers are prepared to stay out? He also urged more humanitarian assistance for Syrians. He worried that if the Europeans fail to give more aid they may be left with no friends at all in Syria. Given the way that conflict is going, why would that be such a bad thing? Trying to make friends is about the dumbest reason one can imagine for getting involved in such a war.

Well, that’s the start here in Doha. I just can’t wait for additional “fascinating” observations from more “profound” thinkers like Messrs. Brown, Fillon, Bondou, and Ischinger!

Our Astrategic Syria Debate

Only a terrifically secure country could have as poor and astrategic a debate about war as the one we’re having about taking sides in Syria’s civil war. 

Actually, we’re not having a debate about taking sides in Syria’s civil war. That’s the problem. We’re debating Syria as though it’s an engineering question—an electrical outage, or a bit of erosion in the backyard. Doing so removes the most vexing aspects of the issue, leading us to the delusion that military action can easily make things better. 

Too much of the discussion has focused on moral arguments and too little of it on the very real political problems beneath the war. Take the advocacy of Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution. As Hamid wrote of his thinking on Syria in January 2012, he was pro-intervention “emotionally, and from a purely moral perspective,” but had some nagging non-emotional, non-moral concerns: “I cannot say whether military intervention would work.” By June, though, the emotional and the moral took over, with Hamid declaring that it was “not the job of civilian think tanks” to figure out how military intervention would produce the desired outcome. 

Princeton’s Anne-Marie Slaughter, who until recently occupied George Kennan’s old office at the State Department, has similarly assumed away Syrian politics, making the case for intervention much easier. As she tweeted Sunday, “Suppose US goal in #Syria were simply to STOP THE KILLING. Forget who might/might not win down the line. What’s fastest/best way to do that?” 

But forgetting who might win down the line waves off the central problem: the killing is happening for a political reason. Bashar al-Assad and his enemies are not engaged in wanton, nihilistic slaughter; they are struggling over political control of Syria. Any analysis that removes that basic fact from the discussion of how to “STOP THE KILLING” turns a complex political question into a technical, scientific project, creating the delusion that it can be readily fixed by the U.S. government. 

In fairness to Hamid and Slaughter, they are carrying the torch of a time-honored American tradition of foreign policy thinking. Historically, debates over foreign intervention in the United States have featured liberal analysts against realists and the military. In the 1950s, President Eisenhower reportedly had to admonish his activist Secretary of State John Foster Dulles to calm down: “Don’t do something, Foster, just stand there!” 

In the 1990s, apolitical liberal thinking on war reached its pinnacle. When Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell expressed hesitation about the Clinton administration’s intervention ideas, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright lashed out: “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” And President Clinton’s lack of understanding of war caused him to ruminate, accurately, to General Hugh Shelton that it would “scare the shit out of al Qaeda if suddenly a bunch of black ninjas rappelled out of helicopters into the middle of their camp.”

In the 1990s, realists like Richard Betts were warning Americans not to fall victim to the “delusion of impartial intervention.” Admonishing policymakers for their newfound enthusiasm for limited, ostensibly apolitical intervention, Betts reminded readers of a ground truth: “A war will not end until both sides agree who will control whatever is in dispute.” This is as true in Syria as it is anywhere. Alternatively, if analysts want to use the U.S. military to regime-change Assad, they have every obligation to explain how they intend to shepherd the country toward whatever political order they seek.

More honest hawkishness can be found at the Institute for the Study of War, whose recent paper advocating aiding the Syrian opposition admitted that politics matter

The goal behind U.S. support to the opposition should be to build a force on the ground that is committed to building a nonsectarian, stable Syria, with a government more likely to respect American interests. 

That outcome is presumably what all analysts urging intervention desire. The trick is to acknowledge the problems of connecting military means to our political desiderata. Anyone who doesn’t deal with the underlying political problems at stake is threatening to push the country into another ill-considered, potentially costly war.

Obama’s Perilous Foreign Policy Path

To both a greater and lesser degree of success, foreign policy scholars have tried to explain the disconnect between President Obama’s soaring idealism of America’s role in the world and his halting political caution about it in discrete situations. That vacillation has drawn criticism, both for being too meddlesome and for not being meddlesome enough. 

Daily Caller contributor Adam Bates ably sums up the president’s incoherence as “not based on any particular logic or worldview beyond the president’s own desire to distance himself from America’s foreign policy past without bothering to actually change any policies.” Indeed. As this author has written in the past, specifically on counterterrorism policies, 

On the one hand, Obama openly rejected Bush’s ‘with us or against us’ approach to foreign affairs. On the other hand, Obama’s sophisticated demeanor opened him to criticism, with hawks condemning him as too weak and easily manipulated by America’s enemies. 

The administration has supported policies that have failed to deliver tangible benefits to the American people (Libya), continued to prop up brutal regimes (Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt), and helped tether our country to the region’s parochial quarrels (Afghanistan, Pakistan, and perhaps ever-more-so in Syria). Despite seemingly courageous attempts to distance itself from failed policies of the past, the Obama administration has managed to drift into strategic purgatory. 

WSJ Calls for No-Fly Zone in Syria, Acknowledges No-Fly Zone Isn’t Enough

It seems the Wall Street Journal editorial board has yet to identify a conflict in which the United States should not intervene. Today, they again call for U.S. military intervention in Syria and criticize President Obama for his inaction. Their main recommendation? Easy: set up a no-fly zone: 

The U.S. could boost its diplomatic leverage with the rebels and their regional allies by enforcing no-fly zones over portions of Syria. That would help prevent the regime from using its attack jets and helicopter gunships against civilian targets while allowing insurgents to consolidate and extend their territorial gains. It also means we could use limited force in a way that strengthens the hand of rebels we support at the expense of those we don’t. 

The key point here is that the Journal leaves open the possibility of using “limited force” to help the rebels. Indeed, this is what no-fly zones often become: precursors to additional involvement at a later date (think Iraq and Libya). I argued as much last week: 

If the no-fly zone fails to swiftly halt the violence, some will claim that preserving U.S. credibility requires an even deeper commitment. Or [no-fly zones] can just become a slippery slope in their own right. The ink was barely dry on the UN Security Council resolution authorizing a no-fly zone over Libya before the mission morphed into a no-drive zone on the ground, and then a major military operation to overthrow Qaddafi’s government. 

As a general rule, we shouldn’t send our military on feel-good missions that have little chance of success. And that is what no-fly zones are. They also have a clear political purpose, in this case to ensure that the opposition prevails over the Assad regime and its supporters. There is no such thing as an impartial intervention. 

In Libya, there wasn’t such an explicit call for a no-fly zone as a means to toppling Muammar Gaddafi. The UN resolution authorizing the no-fly zone did not include “regime change” as a goal, but that’s what it became. In Syria, a no-fly zone would be used explicitly for the purpose of toppling Bashar al-Assad’s regime. But if regime change is the goal, a no-fly zone will not do much to lead us there. They are security-theater, as Ben Friedman has pointed out: “No-fly zones commit us to winning wars but demonstrate our limited will to win them. That is why they are bad public policy.” 

More Calls for Intervention in Syria

Pressure is building on President Obama to involve the United States more deeply in the brutal civil war in Syria that may have claimed as many as 70,000 lives, and created more than a million refugees. Late last week, the editorial board of the Washington Post called for “aggressive intervention by the United States and its allies to protect the opposition and civilians.” 

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) apparently believes that the Post didn’t go far enough because the editorial explicitly ruled out sending U.S. ground troops. He wants the U.S. military to secure suspected chemical weapons caches there. But where Graham is leading few will follow, aside from his frequent co-conspirator, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ). The American people are not anxious to send U.S. troops into the middle of yet another civil war in the region.

Some do want the U.S. government to do more, however, and not just the people who sold us the war in Iraq. For example, during a stop in Saudi Arabia earlier this month, Secretary of State John Kerry made vague references to increasing the flow of arms to the Syrian opposition. Back here in Washington, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) became the latest to call for establishing a no-fly zone over Syria. Arms supplied to resistance fighters can be directed against other targets when the regime collapses (or may simply prolong the war if it doesn’t), which is why no-fly zones are seen as the less risky option. They could satisfy the understandable human instinct to be seen as doing something, anything, in the face of enormous human suffering. As such, if President Obama were to institute a no-fly zone, it might forestall an even more costly and risky operation, one that did involve U.S. troops on the ground. 

But no-fly zones often become precursors to additional involvement at a later date. If the no-fly zone fails to swiftly halt the violence, some will claim that preserving U.S. credibility requires an even deeper commitment. Or they can just become a slippery slope in their own right. The ink was barely dry on the UN Security Council resolution authorizing a no-fly zone over Libya before the mission morphed into a no-drive zone on the ground, and then a major military operation to overthrow Qaddafi’s government. 

As a general rule, we shouldn’t send our military on feel-good missions that have little chance of success. And that is what no-fly zones are. They also have a clear political purpose, in this case to ensure that the opposition prevails over the Assad regime and its supporters. There is no such thing as an impartial intervention. We are choosing sides, and arguably already have, without a clear sense that the regime that comes after will be an improvement over what came before. We are placing ourselves into the middle of a much wider sectarian dispute taking place throughout the region. 

Claims that the United States has a unique opportunity to shape the political process in Syria are equally misguided. Though we wish otherwise, a U.S. government stamp of approval is likely to undermine the legitimacy of genuine democrats in Syria, to the extent that there are any. And we know that the opposite is true: individuals or groups singled out for criticism, for example the al-Nasra Front, have seen their stature rise. The reason is simple: the American brand has never been lower in the region, and is held in particularly low regard in Syria. 

When I wrote about Syria late last year (here and here), I was reasonably confident that President Obama would not intervene, in spite of the fact that his decision to help the Libyan rebels overthrow Muammar Qaddafi established a precedent for a similar regime-change operation in Syria. The key distinctions between the two cases include UN Security Council support for intervention in Libya, but not in Syria, a relatively well-defined mission in Libya, but not in Syria, and a reasonable expectation that the costs of military operations could be kept limited, and would deliver clear results, which was true in Libya, but is not true in Syria. Earlier this week, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey threw cold water on the notion that the military could produce an acceptable outcome in Syria. 

The general’s candor is both welcome and refreshing. Although the suffering in Syria is gut-wrenching, the U.S. military lacks the ability to resolve the underlying social and political disputes that are driving the civil war. Indeed, as Ben Friedman pointed out last year, outside intervention might actually prolong such conflicts, or initiate new ones, resulting in even greater loss of life. 

The American people have so far proved unwilling to intervene in Syria, and are particularly resistant to the idea of U.S. troops marching on Damascus. They were similarly disinclined to become involved in Libya, however, and the president ignored the public in that previous case. He should not do so with respect to Syria. And Congress shouldn’t allow it if he tries.

Obama Right to Resist Arming Syrian Rebels

In a front-page story for the Wall Street Journal, Adam Entous reports that President Obama rejected a plan to arm Syrian rebels presented by officials at the Pentagon, CIA, and State Department. It seems that despite the advice of the most senior members of his national security team, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, and then-CIA director David Petraeus, the president decided against becoming more deeply embroiled in a brutal civil war. 

The president’s caution is welcome news for those of us who are skeptical of the United States’ ability to pick winners and losers in distant conflicts. I am also deeply sympathetic with the president’s dilemma, which is the theme of my book The Power Problem. “With great power comes great responsibility,” as the saying goes. But true responsibility means acting wisely, not simply acting. It takes enormous discipline and courage for a president to resist the incessant demands that he do something—anything—when horrible things occur. He should only act (1) in those rare cases when vital U.S. national security interests are at stake, and (2) when it is clear that the action being taken has a reasonable chance of delivering tangible results at a reasonable cost. 

Neither of those criteria is satisfied with respect to the Syrian conflict. 

Indeed, as the Journal story notes, the president appreciated that armed support for individuals and factions within the Syrian opposition was likely to have a number of unintended consequences. Specifically, the White House was dissatisfied with the answers to “lingering questions” including “which rebels could be trusted with the arms, whether the transfers would make a difference in the campaign to remove Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, and whether the weapons would add to the suffering.” And the president apparently didn’t listen only to those making the case for expanded U.S. involvement; an anonymous U.S. official told the Journal that a team of CIA analysts cast doubt on the impact of arming the rebels in the conflict. 

Although the United States is providing non-lethal support to Syrian rebels, there are other good reasons to avoid doing more. One is the United States’ terrible track record in providing material, and lethal, support to opposition groups and figures. We have often mistaken power-hungry thugs, or simply manipulative charlatans, for committed democrats, and it is unreasonable to expect that our ability to separate the true patriots from the phonies has improved markedly since Iraq.