Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Attacking Syria: no better than "the least bad option"?

Aaron David Miller in an article apparently prepared before the Russian peace initiative flurry of yesterday and today, Can Obama Afford Not to Bomb Syria? Foreign Policy 09/09/2013, expresses great skepticism that attacking Syria is a good idea and is unconvinced by the argument that not attacking Syria is likely to have some significantly bad consequence for the US:

Let's face it. Obama's in a real box. He's got bad options on Syria, he doesn't have a lot of support, and he faces the very real prospect that this situation won't end happily for him. Even the least bad option -- the one that falls in the middle between not acting and acting too expansively -- is a dog's lunch. A limited military strike -- even one that falls on the tougher end of the limited continuum -- isn't likely to have much of an impact. And that raises the very real possibility that not acting won't make all that much difference.

Having supported the president's willful and wise decision to avoid militarizing the U.S. role in Syria for the past two years, I find myself struggling with bad options now. Doing nothing is unacceptable in the face of the largest single deployment of chemical weapons since Saddam gassed the Kurds; doing everything to change the battlefield balance is reckless and will ensure too much ownership of a Syrian problem we can't fix. And that leaves the muddle in the middle.

If I were in government -- a land where "doing something" is a built-in part of the job description -- I'd be tempted to go with the limited strike option.

But I have no illusions. When you're selling the least bad option as a strategic and consequential move, you know you have a problem. The international community knows that the kind of military action the United States is contemplating is no solution and could make matters worse; the American people know it; much of Congress knows it; and I suspect Barack Obama knows it, too. If the president ends up acting militarily against Syria, he knows that, more than likely, it will make a point rather than a significant difference. And when U.S. military power is deployed and American lives put in harm's way, that is never a good outcome.
In the end, this is a pretty wish-washy conclusion, despite the useful observations in Miller's article. If there's no significant benefit associated with starting a war, it's better not to start it.

He also doesn't consider the legality of a US military attack on Syria.

Stephen Walt has a good post reminding us what a minor power Syria is, Syria Matters Less Than Everyone Thinks Foreign Policy 09/09/2013:

Contrary to what people like Bill Keller seem to think, the United States is not becoming "isolationist." Opposition to the Syrian adventure stems from the fact that U.S. strategic interests are not deeply engaged (here the American people have got this one right), and moral considerations do not mandate intervention because we might easily make things worse and increase the level of human suffering. But comparisons to World War II are deeply misleading: Assad is a thug and a war criminal, but he's not genocidal or bent on world domination, and Syria is not a great power like Germany was. No matter what happens in Syria, the United States will remain the single most formidable international actor, and other countries aren't going to lose sight of that reality in the years ahead. I'd even bet that the pivot to Asia continues no matter who is elected the next U.S. president, unless China slips badly and doesn't seem like an emerging threat anymore.

Instead of becoming "isolationist," the American people seem to be returning to a realistic degree of prudence. To oppose a military response in Syria because it won't make Americans more secure and may not help the Syrians very much isn't cowardly, irresponsible, or feckless; you might just call it common sense. [my emphasis in bold]
He also notes the ridiculous and all-too-predictable threat inflation in which the advocates of war are indulging:

... advocates of military strikes have been using increasingly overheated rhetoric over the past week, employing the familiar tropes and arguments that hawks have relied on ever since World War II. Comparisons to Hitler and the Holocaust? Check. Obligatory reference to Munich? Got it. Lurid warnings about a loss of American "credibility"? Uh-huh. Repeated attempts to portray opponents of a military strike as "isolationists" or worse? Roger.

This approach makes it appear that what is at stake in the Syria debate is nothing less than America's Future Role in the World. If the United States doesn't act, so the argument runs, this one decision heralds a progressive retreat of the United States from its global responsibilities (whatever those are), its steady decline as a great power, and the onset of a new era of global anarchy. But if the United States can just find the will to send some cruise missiles into Syria, then all those terrible things can be avoided and American leadership will be restored (until the next time it is hanging by a hair, of course -- probably a few months from now).
Walt is also reserved about the peace prospects offered by the Russian initiative:

There has been a flurry of diplomatic activity today, based on a Russian proposal to take control of Syria's chemical weapons arsenal. If the U.S. goal is merely to reinforce the "red line" against chemical weapons use, then it has little choice but to take the deal and spin it as a great success for "tough" U.S. diplomacy. But it is likely to take some time to work out the procedures and actually secure the weapons, and there's always the risk that Russia would renege (or Assad would cheat) so as to retain a chemical weapons option in extremis. More importantly, this arrangement doesn't by itself get us much closer to settling the war, which should be our primary objective. To do that, the United States is going to have to engage with Russia and Iran, and we might even have to agree to leave Assad in power for a while. That's not a very satisfying outcome, perhaps, but it is one that would save a lot of lives.
If the war resolution that cleared the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week reflects the parameters of the Obama Administration's goals, then the point of the intervention is far less to reinforce international law against chemical weapons - by staging a war of aggression in violation of international law - than to military boost the Syrian opposition, which the resolution specifies include the Free Syrian Army, the Syrian Supreme Military Council and the Syrian Opposition Coalition.

If the Administration's main goal is to intervene militarily to promote those rebel forces, they will likely continue to push for war sooner rather than later. They will see the Russian peace initiative as bad news.

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