Why Obama's Plan to Strike Syria Makes No Strategic Sense

Even a humanitarian operation demands a logical premise and a well-designed goal. The administration's proposal has neither.
Protesters outside the White House (Jason Reed/Reuters)

Having backed himself into a corner by declaring a "red line" that has now been crossed, President Obama is by all appearances ramping up for military action in Syria. As best we can tell from the not inconsiderable leaks coming from Washington and elsewhere, the planned strikes would use aerial assets, last only a short period, and decidedly not be aimed at achieving our declared strategic goal.

Humanitarian wars have their own grammar but not their own logic.

The president has repeatedly articulated, going back to August 2011, that there is but one acceptable end state: "Assad must go."  Dean of the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies and former ambassador Christopher Hill may well be right that this declaration "was not carefully arrived at" and has "boxed us in," it nonetheless remains the administration's policy.

Yet, the White House has been emphatic that the action contemplated here is not aimed at achieving that strategic objective. Press secretary Jay Carney declared Tuesday that, "It is not our policy to respond to this transgression with regime change" and that "there is no military solution available here, that the way to bring about a better future in Syria is through negotiation and a political resolution." 

So, what then? 

Carney declared "there must be a response" to the chemical attacks and other "administration officials" have said that the strikes would "send a message." Any message sent by launching military strikes explicitly not designed to achieve one's stated strategic goal would be cryptic, and should probably be accompanied by a decoder ring.

An editorial in the German business daily Handelsblatt, helpfully translated by Der Spiegel, puts the case brilliantly:

Humanitarian wars are also wars. Those who jump into them for moral reasons should also want to win them. Cruise missiles fired from destroyers can send a message and demonstrate conviction, but they cannot decide the outcome of a war. Neither can a "we'll see" bombardment. There has to be a strategic motivation behind the moral one, and it demands perseverance.

To paraphrase military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, humanitarian wars have their own grammar but not their own logic. That is, they're fought to achieve political objectives and judged on whether they have been achieved. Regardless of what modifier accompanies it, wars are fought, in the words of the British military theorist Basil Liddell Hart, to "obtain a better state of the peace."

While Secretary of State Kerry's August 26 speech setting the stage for US response was eloquent and emotionally satisfying, its fundamental argument makes no strategic sense. Who could argue against the idea that "The indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders by chemical weapons is a moral obscenity”? As Fred Hof, President Obama's former special advisor for transition in Syria and my colleague at the Atlantic Council, rightly notes, "Such slaughter is, in fact, morally obscene and criminal irrespective of the weaponry employed."

Chemical weapons account for less than one percent of the more than 100,000 killed in this conflict. Yet, while I'm sympathetic to international relations expert John Mueller's argument that chemical weapons are not inherently more horrible than many modern conventional weapons, their "development, production, acquisition, stockpiling, retention, transfer or use" are technically prohibited as a matter of international law. While Syria is one of seven states who have not signed and ratified the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, they acceded to the 1925 Geneva Protocol in 1968.

But enforcement of these agreements is the province of the UN Security Council, not the executive branch of the U.S. government. And, rather inconveniently, Kerry's speech was delivered on the same day that Foreign Policy reported that the U.S. government aided and abetted Saddam Hussein's use of chemical weapons against Iran in 1988.

Presented by

James Joyner is an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council.

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