Authorizing Use of Force in Syria

This topical rant was ranted on September 7, 2013, before the surprise floating of a settlement proposal by the Russians.

We are coming up to a vote in Congress on whether to authorize President Obama to make a punitive strike on Syria in response to President Assad’s use of chemical weapons (CW).  Although I always like to support President Obama in his battles with the morons in Congress, I would vote NO on this one.

I will concede for argument’s sake that Assad has done what he is accused of.  But I don’t see how this ill-timed strike can be strategically effective after having been telegraphed for a month.  An immediate, sharp, surprise strike might have been an effective response.  But now Assad has had a month to disperse his CW forces and apparatus, evacuate likely-targeted buildings, protect sites with human shields (by putting them in civilian areas, lodging prisoners there, etc.), all of which he is already doing.

Also, I don’t see how a punitive strike makes any difference without making too much difference.  We have held off intervening in the war in Syria for two years because we didn’t want to back the wrong rebels and end up with an Islamist jihadi regime as the victor in all or part of the country.  Our waiting has made that outcome increasingly likely, as the jihadis (especially the al-Qaeda-based Jabhat al-Nusra) were strengthened by aid from their sponsors and the other rebels weren’t.  Even though we promised aid after Assad’s previous CW episode, we haven’t delivered it.  Now we are afraid to overthrow Assad for fear of what would happen next.  But if we don’t want to tip the contest so he loses, then we have to pitch our punitive strike low enough so it won’t hurt him too much.  And if we do it that way, why do it at all?

President Obama is now in the position of having to tailor his strike to please the hawks who want Assad defeated and the doves who want a strike so measured as to be essentially just what the President called it: a “shot across the bow” (Secretary Kerry promised it would be “unbelievably small.”)  These objectives are incompatible, and it is not likely that a strike designed to meet both of them, especially after telegraphing the punch so long we have to keep revising our target list, can possibly be effective.  And an ineffective strike is probably worse than none – we would get all the downside with little of the up.

And speaking of the downside, Secretary Kerry is confidently predicting that he knows just what Syria’s response will be, and it will be nothing.  Never mind how he thinks he knows this.  It should be obvious to everyone who has studied history, and especially the history of war, that the next step can almost never be accurately predicted, especially if the prediction is that the enemy will do nothing.  I don’t see how we avoid being drawn in if there is retaliation by Syria (or Iran, or Hezbollah, or even Russia), against us or against Israel, or if there is retaliation against Israel and Israel responds (as it certainly would).

And how would we respond if we strike Assad for using CW, and then, defiantly, he uses it again?  Having hit him once for a relatively small use of CW, wouldn’t we have to hit him harder the next time?  If we are hitting him now to send a signal, because not sending a signal is thought to be worse, what happens if we need to send another signal?  Where does it end?  These things are easy to start, but not easy to stop.

It is said we have to act because no one else will, not even the British.  But the fact that no one else will seems like a good argument not to act.  The Security Council is the lawful path for military action apart from self-defense.  It is true that Russia’s intransigence is blocking that route, but the weakness of the existing collective structure is not really our sole responsibility to correct.  And it should not be an excuse for solitary rogue action, and our action would be a rogue one no matter how big we think we are.  The fact that collective action seems unavailable now does not justify our moving alone in the absence of a threat to our own security.  If we really are defending a universal norm, we should have help – otherwise maybe it isn’t as universal as we think, and we can’t make it universal all by ourselves.

I don’t see how mission creep can be avoided, or how it can be tailored to satisfy those who want more and those who want less without becoming a conceptual mess.  I don’t think it is well-enough thought through, or sufficiently likely to accomplish its objectives, to justify the risks.  Yes, doing nothing (or next to nothing) about Assad’s use of CW is unfortunate, but this has now been mishandled to the point where the consequences of action are even worse than the consequences of doing nothing.

All the dithering so far has cost us strategically – having dithered this much over a token punitive strike, even if we go now Iran (for example) won’t believe we will ever strike them for getting a nuclear weapon.  So enough already – let’s not make it any worse.  And events out of our control could make it a lot worse in a lot of unanticipated ways.  The presumption should always be against military action unless a convincing case can be made that the prospects for success outweigh the risks, and that there are protections available against excessive entanglement.  Iraq and Afghanistan should have shown us by now the risks of military action in these parts without clearly defined goals, clearly sufficient means to achieve them, clear international and domestic support, and a clearly workable exit strategy (the Powell Doctrine).  We don’t have any of these in place – we have only risks, and not even a reasonable prospect of success to weigh against them.

And finally, there’s this.  Suppose I’m wrong.  As a Member of Congress, which wrong vote would I regret more: stopping Obama from striking Assad when he should have done it, or not stopping him when he should not have done it?  The risk of not making this gesture (since that’s what is is promised to be, only a gesture) is marginal and hard to judge.  Maybe it affects the psychology of tyrants, and maybe it doesn’t, or at least not much.  But the risk of military intervention is our embroilment in a disastrous war and wreaking who knows what irreversible changes in an already deadly dangerous situation.  I’d rather risk the first regret than the second.

In these circumstances, if I were in Congress I would vote NO.  The purpose of publishing this rant is to put it on the record before the strike, if there is one, and its predictably unfortunate consequences, that I was against it in time.